Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Shall we dance?

(2017) Fantasy (Disney) Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ray Fearon, Haydn Gwynne, Gerald Horan, Nathan Mack, Clive Rowe, Thomas Padden, Gizmo, Rita Davies, Adrian Schiller, Harriet Jones, Zoe Rainey. Directed by Bill Condon

 

Disney has of late taken the strategy of remaking animated classics as live action films. It has thus far been successful for them; Maleficent, Jungle Book and Cinderella have both been moneymakers for the studio. Now comes the most lavish and most recent of the animated classics to get a live action version.

The tale’s as old as time; Belle (Watson) is a bookish, intelligent young woman growing up in a provincial town in France in the 18th century. The daughter of Maurice (Kline), a widowed inventor, she happily borrows every book she can get her hands on and cheerfully ignores the advances of the young men of the town, particularly Gaston (Evans), a former soldier chafing in his idleness in a life of hunting and drinking, assisted by the loyal LeFou (Gad).

On the way to the market, Maurice gets chased by wolves onto the grounds of a creepy looking castle. It turns out to be inhabited by a dreadful Beast (Stevens) and living furniture who used to be the servants of the castle. When Maurice’s horse comes home without him, Belle knows something is wrong and races out to rescue her father. When she finds him locked up in a prison cell in the castle, shivering and sick, she offers to take his place and the Beast agrees.

What she doesn’t know is that the Beast and all who lived with him are victims of a curse leveled by a witch (Morahan) who was refused hospitality on a cold stormy night because she was ugly. Now time is running out on the curse which can only be broken by someone who loves the Beast and is loved by him. But Belle is beautiful; she can have any man she wants. Why would she want a Beast?

Although roughly based on the French fairy tale, this version more closely adheres to the 1991 Disney animated version and includes the songs written by the Oscar-winning duo of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken and includes four new songs written by Mencken and lyricist Tim Rice. The results are lush and elegant, gathering many of the elements that worked so well in the original and transferring them note-perfectly into live action.

The production design here is intense and we feel that we are given a glimpse not necessarily into 18th century France so much as a France of myth and legend. It’s an idealized version that is at odds with the suffering amongst the poorer classes that was so great that they rose up and slaughtered their own ruling class. Here however, the ruling class in their rococo Versailles is beloved by the simple folk despite the cruelty and conspicuous consumption displayed by the palace’s occupant that was so egregious that he and all around him were cursed. Well, he had some daddy issues so I suppose he can be excused, right?

There also was much made over the “outing” of LeFou as Disney’s first outright gay character, but even that is a bit of a tempest in Mrs. Potts (Thompson). LeFou’s coming out consists of him dancing with another man (who is dressed as a woman for reasons I won’t get into here) for a few seconds of screen time at the movie’s conclusion. Considering the brouhaha it created in the religious right, I’m not surprised Disney is taking baby steps towards inclusion (there are also a couple of interracial couples among the castle’s inhabitants) but it does feel like the studio didn’t have the courage of their convictions here.

Still, one must commend them for at least trying and for not bending to pressure, refusing to re-cut the movie for Malaysian censors who banned the film from their country based on those few seconds of screen time. Personally, I think the studio should have cut the film a little more judiciously; it runs over two hours long which is about 45 minutes longer than the original animated feature. Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos flesh out the backstory, explaining why Belle’s mother is out of the picture and why the Beast’s human prince was such a rotten individual among other things and it makes the movie a little too ponderous for its own good. Several little princesses in full regalia at the screening Da Queen and I attended got extremely restless during the movie’s final half hour.

But the ending is definitely worth it. It is slightly different than the animated version and the difference is enough to really tug at the heartstrings and create an emotional catharsis that warms the cockles even as you’re wiping away the tears. I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did; everything I heard about it made me fear that it was a bloated mess and in some ways it is, but there is enough heart here that it actually becomes a worthwhile viewing. Plenty of little princesses are going to be demanding that their parents add this to their video collection not too long down the line when it becomes available.

Chances are, you’ve already seen this and if you haven’t, I strongly urge you see it on the big screen while you still can. The amazing special effects deserve the best possible presentation. Even if you aren’t required to see it by a child in your life, this is actually a fine motion picture for adults, if for no other reason the nostalgia that it evokes. It truly is a tale old as time.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are gorgeous. The film has a lot more heart than you’d expect from an effects-heavy fantasy.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much ephemera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and action sequences, scenes of peril and a few frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian McKellen was originally offered the part of Cogsworth for the 1991 animated version and turned it down (David Ogden Stiers eventually took the role) but he chose to accept it this time out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Dinner

Collateral Beauty


Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here...

Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here…

(2016) Drama (New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, Benjamin Snyder, Mary Beth Peil, Andy Taylor, Michael Cumpsty, Jonathan Rivera Morales, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Ella Monte-Brown. Directed by David Frankel

 

We all deal with grief in different ways. Some of us pour ourselves into our work; others lose all focus. Some of us rage against the universe; others try to find something constructive to do, such as create or work for a charity. Sooner or later however all of us must deal with the loss of a loved one.

Howard (Smith) is doing just that. His beloved daughter has passed away and now, two years later, the successful advertising agency he built is floundering, losing clients left and right because Howard, their main creative force, just doesn’t care anymore. His best friends all work at the company; Whit (Norton), who co-founded the company with him, Claire (Winslet) who has given up marriage and children to give her full focus on the company and Simon (Peña), the numbers man.

There is an offer on the table to buy the company but Howard won’t even consider it. All of the principals stand to lose everything if they can’t salvage the situation and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Whit, Claire and Simon, desperate to understand what’s going on with Howard, hire a private detective (Dowd) to figure out what their friend is doing. Nothing much; mainly building domino constructions, biking back and forth from work and writing letters.

The latter is kind of the peculiar part; they’re not letters to people but to things; concepts, really. He’s been writing to Love, Death and Time. The three partners hit upon an idea that, well, never would have occurred to me; to hire three unemployed actors that Whit has found who can play the parts of Love, Death and Time who will personally answer Howard’s letters. They’re not really hoping that this performance will bring Howard back but the detective can film Howard talking to them (yelling at them really) and then digitally remove the three actors so that Howard can be proven incompetent and the sale go through without him.

The actors that Whit recruits – Brigitte (Mirren) who plays Death, Amy (Knightley) who plays Love (now, that I can believe) and Raffi (Lattimore) who plays Time each begin to spend time with one of the partners – Brigitte with Simon, Amy with Whit and Raffi with Claire – and end up helping them with their own problems. In the meantime, Howard has started attending a support group for grieving parents run by the lovely Madeleine (Harris) and looks like he might finally be emerging from his shell. But will it be in time to save everything he’s built, including his friendships?

If the plot summary sounded implausible that’s pretty much because it is. I can’t imagine “friends” doing something that awful to a friend, and the movie portrays them as genuinely concerned for Howard’s well-being. I can’t really reconcile the actions of concocting an elaborate scam to prove their friend incompetent (which has other ramifications beyond the sale of his company) with all the mea culpa chest-beating about what a great guy Howard is and how much they “miss” the old Howard. I mean, friends just don’t do that.

The cast is one of the best you’ll see gathered in a single movie with a couple of Oscar winners and four nominees. None of them will be adding to their nomination total here but the performances are nonetheless solid. Peña caught my attention for a very emotional performance as a family man facing a terrible crisis of his own, and Smith who is the main performance in what is essentially an ensemble cast gets to keep everything in until the last scene in which he unleashes some of his best acting of his career.

That ending however contains a twist so unbelievable that at that point most people are just going to throw their hands up in the air and give up on the movie, and I can’t blame them. However, if you do as I do and just enjoy the ride rather than try to make sense of things, you’ll be far happier.

Now as you can tell the critical response has been harsh. Keep in mind however that most professional critics don’t like being emotionally manipulated and films that do that tend to get harsh scores. In that sense, critics can’t be trusted with films like this. You really have to go and experience it on your own and judge for yourself. You, after all, may not mind being having your emotions manipulated. Maybe you need it. I do, sometimes. Sometimes I need the release of a good cry. Catharsis makes us all emotionally healthier after all.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Peña and Smith. The premise is at least intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Many of the plot twists are telegraphed. The ending is a bit preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity but mostly the themes are pretty adult in nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winslet, Mirren and Smith were all nominated for Oscars in 2007, although only Mirren was victorious.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meet Joe Black
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Honeyglue


You meet the happiest people in bars.

You meet the happiest people in bars.

(2016) Drama (Zombot) Adriana Mather, Zach Villa, Christopher Heyerdahl, Jessica Turk, Booboo Stewart, Amanda Plummer, Fernanda Romero, Ezequiel Stremiz, Faran Tahir, Clayton Rohner, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Kristin Minter, Josh Woodle, Fernando Martinez, Jeremy Shelton, Rajan Velu, Pamela Francesca, Cristen Barnes, Cody Provolt, Stephen Farbman, Chelsea Mark. Directed by James Bird

Woman Power

Love doesn’t choose very well. It just chooses. Who we fall in love with may not necessarily be the best person for us but the heart doesn’t care. It loves who it chooses.

Morgan (Mather) is a young woman from a middle class, conservative background who has gotten some bad news. Her metastatic brain tumor has gone past the point of no return and she has just three months to live. This doesn’t sit well with her parents, her stolid dad Dennis (Heyerdahl), her mom Janet (Turk) and her brother Bailey (Stewart).

Jordan (Villa) is a troubled young man from the wrong side of the tracks. His somewhat fluid sexual identity makes him a target for abuse, something he’s not really a stranger to. When he meets Morgan in a club, she is making videos with an old Super-8 camera to try and document what’s left in her life. The two find each other talking, and eventually these polar opposites find common ground.

As Jordan and Morgan fall in love he is made aware of her situation. She invites him over to meet her amazingly tolerant parents and her kid brother who seems to accept Jordan out of hand even though he teases the sensitive artist mercilessly. For Jordan’s part, he is inspired by Morgan to write a children’s story about a Dragonfly boy and a bee princess who fall in love. Soon, life imitates art.

But it isn’t easy for two such different people to co-exist and with the specter of Morgan’s imminent demise and her desire to die somewhere other than a hospital looming over their heads, Jordan is going to have to do a lot more than just break the rules for her. He’s going to have to write some new ones.

The dying teen story tends to be one of the most poignant in all of the world’s tales (although I’m guessing Morgan/Mather is more in her mid to late 20s) and to the filmmakers credit, they don’t exploit it as much as they might. The film concentrates heavily on mortality itself, and the question of quality of life versus quantity of years. With Morgan’s clock ticking down, it seems a ripe opportunity to get her thoughts on the subject.

And we kinda do, but they are expressed so poorly in platitudes that sound profound but comes off as pretentious and smug. The movie tries really hard to be different than the norm, too hard in fact and we end up feeling talked down to rather than engaged in conversation. It’s a shame, because the cast actually manages to put together some fine performances, particularly by Mather, Heyerdahl and Villa, but they are let down because they are given such preposterous dialogue. On the beach, Jordan purrs “You are my realistic fantasy” while Morgan coos “You are my fantastic reality” and the rest of us throw up a little inside our mouths. Real people don’t talk like that. At least, real people you’d want to actually talk to.

I like the idea of making Jordan transgender, but they don’t really do anything with it. It comes off as almost an affectation, like Jordan just happens to like wearing skirts to be different rather than an integral part of who he is. That does actual transgenders a disservice. I thought that giving both Jordan and Morgan (and for that matter, Bailey) unisex names was a bit too cutesy. There’s a feeling that Bird, who also wrote the film, was writing about stereotypes rather than people. While the chemistry between Mather and Villa seemed genuine, the relationship did not.

I was annoyed in a lot of ways by Honeyglue because there really is a good movie to be made here and this is a squandered opportunity to say the least. The performances and subject matter make the movie marginally worth seeing, but the writing and overall tone just lost me. I don’t know if Bird knows any cancer patients or transgenders and maybe he does but if he does, they didn’t make it into the script. The characters didn’t feel real; in fact, none of the characters here did, and that’s a big problem. The movie is gradually expanding to locations around the country and will likely be on VOD at some point, but this is one only for the curious. Serious film lovers will likely find this as frustrating as I did.

REASONS TO GO: Tackles an important subject head-on. Some decent performances in the cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is occasionally pretentious and overwrought. Tries too hard to be daring and different.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of foul language, sexuality and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation, based on the children’s book that Jordan is writing, was done by Kevin Weber.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 17/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

The Giver


A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

(2014) Science Fiction (Weinstein) Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Emma Tremblay, Renate Stuurman, Vanessa Cooke, John Whiteley, Kira Wilkinson, Jefferson Mays (voice), Jaime Coue, Thabo Rametsi, Vaughn Lucas, Meganne Young, Katharina Damm. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Utopias aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be. In fact, there are those who believe that the human animal is incapable of living in a Utopian society for very long; we’re apt to mess it up entirely because we can’t be trusted.

In a Utopian future, war, poverty and hunger have been abolished. People live a peaceful existence in the Community. They take their medication every day, are admonished to speak with a precision of language, apologize for every possible perceived mistake and accept the apologies of others, and live in a world free of color and powerful emotions.

It is a world in which wise elders make the decisions that determine the shape of your life. After a period of nurturing (kind of like schooling) they are given their jobs – mostly tasks like gardening, drone piloting and for certain women, birth giving. There is no Big Brother but a Chief Elder (Streep) smiling benevolently on her flock.

Three friends – Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan) – are eagerly awaiting the ceremony that will elevate them from childhood into productive adult lives. They are all smiling, happy sorts who are satisfied that their lives are going the way they should be.

At the ceremony, Fiona is given nurturer (basically the care giver for babies until they are assigned to a family) as expected and Asher – the class clown – is given drone pilot, monitoring both the Community and the territory beyond the boundary which is barren and uninhabited. However, oddly, Jonas is skipped over. Jonas’ mom (Holmes) – the security chief of the Community and one of the Elders – and Dad (Skarsgard), essentially the community’s doctor, exchange puzzled, troubled looks but at last Jonas is given a tremendous position at the end of the ceremony. He is to become the new Receiver of Memories.

Since the world basically fell apart and the Community sprung out of it, all memories of what preceded the Community have been deliberately removed from the population. Only one man, the Receiver, is allowed to possess those memories and from time to time, use them to advise the Elders on matters that fall outside the normal range of happenings.

The current Receiver doesn’t just tell the new one the tales of the distant past like some sort of Homer. Instead, he clasps hands with the new Receiver and the memories are transferred to him, in this case Jonas. That makes the old Receiver, Jonas tells him wryly, the Giver (Bridges).

The memories change Jonas. They begin to revive color as he sees colors that the memories identify as Red, then Blue, then Yellow. The primaries begin to combine and a whole palette is revealed to a wonder-filled Jonas. That’s not all Jonas receives though; he begins to experience emotions and stops taking his medication which further allow him to experience everything that’s new. His training allows him to lie because the Receiver must conceal these things from the members of the Community.

He discovers things like snow, which doesn’t exist in the climate-controlled Community, and sledding. He also discovers love, which doesn’t exist in the Community and whose concept is confusing to those he tries to explain it to. He soon realizes one thing – he’s falling in love with Fiona, and she might be falling in love with him.

But that’s not all that Jonas discovers. Conformity is everything in the Community and not everybody conforms easily. The Giver who is certainly a non-conformist has been tolerated because of his position but there have been tragedies. Things happen to the babies who don’t meet the minimum weight and length and a baby named Gabriel that Jonas has begun to develop a great deal of affection for may be targeted for those things.

Jonas realizes that the people have had too much removed from them, including their freedom but more importantly the essence of who they are. He will try to save Gabriel from being removed from the community – and at the same time removing himself to pass the barriers of memory. Once he does, the Giver believes that all those memories, emotions and colors will be restored to the Community members. And the Chief Elder will do anything to keep that from happening.

Based on the beloved young adult novel by Lois Lowry, Australian director Noyce takes on a book that is fairly complex and full of metaphors. He’s not always successful here. The look of the film is pretty exciting. The film switches from black and white at the beginning, slowly adding colors as Jonas’ perception begins to expand. The effect isn’t unlike the dining rooms on the Disney cruise ships that change from black and white to color over the course of the meal.

Bridges, resembling the late James Coburn in looks here, has been a huge admirer of the book and has been trying to get the movie made since the 90s, at the time with his father Lloyd in the title role that he plays in the final version. You can see him channeling his Dad, down to the way he clips the dialogue into groups of phrases the way his Dad did. It’s actually kind of sweet.

Streep, allowing herself to look older with little make-up and long silvering hair, doesn’t get a lot of screen time but she has that polite menace that have made certain villains memorable. Like all of the citizens of the Community, she stays on a fairly even keel most of the time.

Therein lies the challenge of the movie. The very essence of the community is emotionlessness. It’s the whole point for its existence. That’s great on the printed page but in a movie, it turns into a bunch of Stepford teens. The overwhelming politeness makes you want to do something unbelievably rude just to get these people to react. I don’t doubt that’s the effect the filmmakers were going for but it can be distracting when you’re trying to follow a story that’s plenty deep as it is.

I haven’t read the book although I’m told it’s amazing so I’m not sure how closely this sticks to the narrative – again, I’m told that it is fairly close but there is some material that is new to the movie. There are some issues that I have with the logic of the overall concept. For example, what’s the need to eliminate the perception of color from the citizens of the Community? I understand the metaphorical reason, but it seems a bit unnecessary. Perhaps I’m just being dense.

Also near the end, after seeing bicycles as the only means of transportation for the whole movie, motorcycles suddenly show up. And not only does Jonas ride the motorcycle (apparently he has the memory for it), he’s able to make a nearly impossible jump from the Community down to the badlands outside the barrier – all with a baby mounted on the front of the bike. Jonas may have the memory of how to ride a motorcycle and even how to jump a motorcycle but he doesn’t have the memory of how to defy physics. The baby should have gone flying like a football through the uprights. Three points!

I like the look of the movie; the Community is clean and futuristic and park-like, while the Giver lives on the outskirts in a mansion that looks not unlike a Romanesque temple that overlooks the clouds and a single tree visible beyond the barrier. It’s visually striking.

Still, despite that I left the movie feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Not that it isn’t entertaining nor can I say with absolute certainty that this is a movie you should avoid seeing. It has its merits. However, I can’t say with absolute certainty that most viewers are going to appreciate and enjoy the movie either. Most folks, I think, are going to react much the same as I did – neither liking nor disliking the film, but not remembering much of it after the final credits are over. For a movie about memories, there’s a certain irony in that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Bridges are terrific as always. Some interesting visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild violence and some mature thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep shot some of her scenes in England (the rest of the film was shot in South Africa while she was shooting Into the Woods.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Never Let Me Go

Cheatin’


Ella in silhouette.

Ella in silhouette.

(2013) Animated Feature (Plymptoons) Directed by Bill Plympton

Florida Film Festival 2014

Love is an odd duck. Love turns to hate in the blink of an eye and so much of it is based on the perception of the other person and our perception of their behavior. That perception can easily be altered or fooled, and in that case, is that love and/or hate truly with the person or with the way we think they are?

Jake is a muscle-bound gas station attendant who has no problem attracting the attention of the ladies. Ella is a beautiful and statuesque single gal who has no problem attracting the attention of the gentlemen. When she is persuaded to go on a bumper car ride that she is at first reluctant to try her hand at, she finds herself in a freak situation in which the gallant Jake comes to her rescue, saving Ella’s life and pissing off his date.

The two fall instantly and madly in love and get married. At first, Jake is crazy about Ella and when he’s not pounding the sheets with her, he’s bringing her flowers and otherwise doting on her. When a jealous admirer doctors up a photo to make it appear that Ella has been cheating on him, the big lug is heartbroken and decides that what’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose. He finds a seedy hotel in the center of town and begins to have at it with every woman he can find – and he can find plenty.

At first Ella doesn’t understand the distance that has become her and Jake. When she discovers the truth, her reaction is a bit more extreme than Jake’s – she hires a contract killer to snuff him. Hell hath no fury and all that. However, by chance she stumbles upon a disgraced stage magician’s signature invention – a soul switching machine. In that way, she is able to switch bodies with the ladies who are dallying with her husband before switching back with Jake none the wiser. It’s not an ideal situation but it’s about to get a whole lot less ideal.

Plympton is one of the most marvelous and original animators of our time. He utilizes a good deal of grotesquerie in his style, which began as a print cartoonist for such publications as Playboy and the National Lampoon. While he is primarily known for his shorts, this is actually his sixth feature and his first to utilize Kickstarter as a means of raising funds.

He sets this tale in an indeterminate time but looks to be post-World War Two America, with big cars prowling the endless roadways, rubes wearing fedoras at the county fair and the attitude towards and between the sexes.

What I like most about Plympton is his ability to see the outrageous and the grotesque about everyday things. He has a wicked sense of humor and this new feature was no exception to that style. Plympton also rarely uses dialogue and once again, the dialogue consists of grunts, moans, squeals and sobs. I imagine he would side on the “pictures” side of thing in the Words and Pictures debate but with Bill Plympton, a picture is truly worth a thousand words.

He draws each of the approximately 20,000 animation cells by hand which is a laborious and time-consuming process and while that necessitates a somewhat spare style, he still uses it to great effect. There are even sequences where he gives homage to fine art and utilizes a variety of drawing styles throughout.

The plot is a little thin which even for a movie that barely scrapes over an hour could have used some punching up. Considering this is his first feature in five years, you’d think he’d have had time to flesh out his story some but then he has also been continuing to create his hand-drawn shorts in that time, and let’s face it everything that he cranks out is a gift.

There’s plenty of sex and violence, as well as subversive humor so don’t think about bringing the kiddies to this one – most of it will sail over their heads and some of it is inappropriate for the DisneyToons set. At the moment this is out and about on the Festival circuit and as with most of his features, I’m sure that a home video release is in the cards. While this isn’t his best feature ever, it is still better than most of the stuff cranked out by the big studios and more fun for us big people by half.

REASONS TO GO: Plympton’s trademark humor.  Varies his style enough to be interesting.

REASONS TO STAY: Thin plotline.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some semi-disturbing images and adult themes. Definitely not for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Plympton has been nominated for two Oscars for his animated shorts Guard Dog and Your Face.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Persepolis

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: 88 Minutes

Love Me


Diamonds are a mail order bride's best friend.

Diamonds are a mail order bride’s best friend.

(2014) Documentary (Powershot) Bobby, Eric, Michael, Robert, John, Ron, Travis, Inna, Svitlana, Vitalina, Elena, Bob. Directed by Jonathon Narducci

Florida Film Festival-2014

Mail order brides have been a business since the 19th century as lonely farmers, mostly in North America, brought over women from mostly Europe. Often there was limited correspondence between the prospective groom and the object of his purchase and generally the transaction (for make no mistake – this was a business deal) was consummated before the buyer had even seen his bride-to-be. The trade expanded in the 20th century to Asia and Africa as lonely American men tried to find alternative ways to discover happiness.

The business still exists today although it is much more refined and in some ways, more high tech. Websites have sprung up on which prospective brides can put their pictures up and correspond via e-mail with their prospective husbands at their leisure. Businesses like A Foreign Affair (which gets the lion’s share of screen time here) have created the ultimate singles bar which is always open.

We follow the journeys of five clients of AFA and one of an Australian service. called Elena’s Models (run by a former Russian mail order bride herself) to the Ukraine to find potential brides. All of the men go with high hopes, some with specific women in mind to meet and hopefully develop a relationship with. The women are all uniformly beautiful; the often seductive client photos all turn out to be legitimate, which was a worry I would have had were I to be in a situation like this – that someone you corresponded with had put up a picture of a model or an actress and was not representing herself honestly.

But of course there are all sorts of ways to represent oneself honesty. Some of the women portrayed here are genuinely eager to find love, but at least one or two were essentially in it to milk as much money as they possibly could out of their American “sugar daddies.” This isn’t a cheap process by the way; if you don’t have the wherewithal to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars, this isn’t a process you should probably undertake although, as one client shrugs, what’s happiness worth? AFA arranges group trips to the Ukraine to facilitate face-to-face meetings between clients and prospective brides. While these trips are optional, they are recommended. All five of our AFA clients are going on a winter trip chaperoned by the head of AFA himself, John Adams who married a Russian woman through a marriage broker service.

The men have varying experiences. Ron, a North Carolina divorcee with grown children, finds that this isn’t the right fit for him and winds up dating a local woman after returning from the Ukraine. The other four men have relationships of varying success with women they either met online through AFA or on the trip. One actually gets married (and delivers one of the steamiest kisses you’ll ever see in a documentary), while the others fizzle out more or less. The expectations of some of the men are unreasonable, while others are less disappointed.

The most heartbreaking story is that of Michael, the lone Australian client. He meets and falls in love with a Ukrainian woman who has a young daughter. Michael bonds with both of them. He even marries the girl of his dreams, then goes back to Australia while she returns to the Ukraine. She stops communicating with him and finally he is forced to go back to the Ukraine to confront her. We discover that she never really had any feelings for him but kept stringing him along to “keep her options open.” It’s plain to see that she is not a very nice woman.

That doesn’t mean that the others aren’t. There are 87 men in the Ukraine for every 100 women and even the most beautiful and desirable women there can have trouble finding a good man, especially when you consider that there is an epidemic of alcoholism among Ukrainian men.

There is a good deal of self-delusion that goes on. It is clear that in some cases there is something wrong but the men tend to ignore the very obvious signs. I think most men are pretty much boneheads about women but I think lonely men can desperately cling to the most tenuous of threads, hoping for a tapestry. It certainly serves as a cautionary tale for any single man looking for something permanent, particularly men 40 and older.

Narducci does an excellent job of impartiality; he lets the stories tell themselves and allows both sides of the coin to be expressed. If there is any glaring issue with the movie it’s that there are too many coins. I wonder if we needed six different subjects, although upon reflection I’m not sure which story I’d eliminate. All of the experiences here are distinct from each other. Still, that means the story drags in places and jumps abruptly from one view to another. Also, with an Elena, Inna and Svitlana coming at you, the names of the women are pretty similar and sometimes I found myself the attractive blondes with one another.

Matters of the heart can be tricky and the documentary captures a view of it from a familiar but completely different viewpoint. Most of us will never use a service like A Foreign Affair but for those who do it can literally be a godsend and it serves a unique but necessary purpose. The movie captures how prevalent loneliness is in our society and while that’s not exactly new information it is nonetheless one thing to know about it intellectually than to stare in the faces of these lonely men – and women – who still carry enough hope in them to try something new. You’ve gotta admire that.

REASONS TO GO: Never judges the industry or the individuals. Shows both sides of the story. Occasionally heartbreaking.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit in places. Maybe tries to follow too many stories at once?

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Model

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Quiet Ones

Fiddler on the Roof


Tradition!

Tradition!

(1971) Musical (United Artists) Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser, Raymond Lovelock, Elaine Edwards, Candy Bonstein, Shimen Ruskin, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich, Alfie Scopp, Howard Goorney, Barry Dennen, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ruth Madoc, Roger Lloyd Pack. Directed by Norman Jewison

Once upon a time movie musicals were some of the greatest entertainment you can get onscreen. They got the big production values, the big names and the big publicity pushes. They also pulled in the big box office numbers. Like the Western, the movie musical grew less important and relevant as the 70s set in.

Some say the last of the great movie musicals (Chicago and A Chorus Line notwithstanding) was Fiddler on the Roof. It was the most popular Broadway musical of all time until A Chorus Line and Cats came along and the big screen version was a big deal, so much so that when Broadway version star Zero Mostel wasn’t cast, he bore a grudge against Hollywood producers that lasted until his death.

Based on stories by the great Jewish author Sholom Aleichem, the story is set in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in Russia in 1905 on the cusp of the Russian Revolution but at this time, the Tsar still reigns and he doesn’t like Jews much. Tevye (Topol) is a dairy farmer with five daughters and no son to help him in his labors. His horse is old and often goes lame so he is obliged to deliver the milk to the village himself. He is married to Golde (Crane) who is somewhat shrewish but one can’t blame her considering all she has to put up with from Tevye.

Three of the daughters are all of marriageable age; Tzeitel (Harris) whom the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Mann) wants to marry but only has eyes for Motel (Frey), the poor and shy tailor. Then there’s Hodel (Marsh), the free-spirited one who falls for Perchik (Glaser), a revolutionary whom Tevye hires to teach his daughters lessons from the Bible. Finally there’s Chava (Small), the gentle red-haired girl who loves to read and falls for Fyedka (Lovelock) who isn’t Jewish.

Tevye, who hangs on to the traditions of his people like a life preserver through troubled times of discrimination and pogroms, is tested by his daughters as they move into the 20th century a little bit ahead of their father.

Critics of the time gave Fiddler on the Roof a right pasting but we were just entering the era of the anti-hero and musicals like this – which was pretty dark and somber as musicals go. Frankly, the movie was kind of a throwback to the great movie musicals like West Side Story and Showboat but at the same time had that kind of ’70s non-conformist attitude. Still, the movie would go on to make an impressive profit (for the time) and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three of them.

One of the things about Fiddler on the Roof that stands out are the songs. They aren’t just hummable ditties but are about something – cultural identity (“Tradition”), the passage of time and regret (”Sunrise, Sunset”), poverty (“If I Were a Rich Man”) and moving on (“Anatevka”). “Sunrise, Sunset” was one of my father’s favorite songs and it still has a bittersweet melancholy when I hear it. Incidentally, when you hear the fiddler play, that’s Isaac Stern you’re hearing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the chorus for this play in my high school production of it so I may well be a little more well-disposed towards it than most. And I do like this movie. It blows like an autumn wind through my soul. I’m not Jewish myself but I know that it occupies a special place in the heart of the Jewish community and deservedly so. This movie celebrates the determination and resilience of the Jews in the face of persecution and misery.

Most musicals are uplifting, upbeat and sunny-cheeked. Fiddler on the Roof does carry a warmth to it but it is the warmth that comes from strength and love, the kind of warmth that is earned after hard work on a cold winter day. It’s a beautiful movie to look at (filmed in Serbia back in the day) but it is a beautiful movie to consider. It has a place in my soul but it isn’t for everybody – but most people will find something to like about it. It is certainly one of the best movie musicals ever made.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous music and a very deep subject for a musical. Some terrific performances, particularly from Topol, Crane, Glaser and Small.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Topol isn’t the greatest singer you’ll ever hear. The film might be a bit long for modern audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some frightening images, some mild violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jewison wanted an earthy tone for the film. Cinematographer noticed a woman wearing a pair of brown nylons and knew that it was the perfect tone for the film. He asked the woman for the nylons and filmed nearly the entire film with the stockings over the camera lens; if you look closely from time to time you can see the weave of the garment.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: They don’t stock DVDs like this anymore. There is a piece on the late director Norman Jewison who also appears in a couple of interview segments. He also reads some stories from author Sholom Aleichem and there’s a featurette on the historical context of the events seen in the movie. You’ll also find production notes from the original production. The 2007 Collector’s Edition also includes additional interviews with the actresses who played Tevye’s daughters, conductor John Williams and composers of the original stage play Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (virtually all of this appears in the Blu-Ray edition).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.4M on a $9M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabaret

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Winter in Wartime